Flow and the Sweat Lodge

A key element of religious ritual is the personal achievement of an altered or elevated state. This change in consciousness, perception, or mood is experienced collectively by many of the participants and this aids the social aspects of religious ritual. This state is something that is seen as desirable on a personal and collective level and is a part of the reason these rituals have survived the test of time and why people keep on coming back for more. Turner references Professor Mihali Csikszentmihalyi in his chapter, Ritual, Tribal and Catholic, and discusses his work on flow. Csikszentmihalvi is looking at things from a psychological perspective, but his ideas about human’s ability to tap into a flow state lines up very nicely with the exalted state that is often a part of religious ritual. In this paper, I will discuss Csikszentmihalvi’s theory of a flow state along with Turner’s interpretation of Csikszentmihalvi ‘s ideas in regards to our sweat lodge experience in Pine Ridge.  This will further illuminate the connections between flow and religious ritual by applying the theory directly to a specific ritual. This will allow us to examine both how well flow applies to religious ritual and how well academic perspectives in general apply to religious ritual.

To start, it will be useful to look at Csikszentmihalvi’s six elements of flow and their application to the sweat lodge ceremony. While we discussed examples of flow’s connection to Lakota ceremony in class, it will be useful to take a more systematic approach here. I found our discussion in class so compelling that I was inspired to complete this analysis and look at each element of flow in relation to the sweat lodge ceremony. To start, Csikszentmihalvi’s general concept of flow is, according to Turner, “A state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part”(Turner). Turner goes on to state that, “flow is clearly what is going on among the participants in successful ritual action”(Turner). This is a good starting point to then examine the six elements of flow in the context of the sweat lodge.

The first element deals with the fusion of action and awareness, which leads to the absence of self-consciousness. Or as Turner puts it, “If a person in flow becomes aware of what he is doing, self-consciousness makes him stumble, and flow-pleasure gives way to anxiety”(Turner). This element is clearly integral to the sweat lodge because the ceremony was so focused on moving away from the awareness of physical suffering. In my mind, this is synonymous with the loss of self-consciousness. You could either choose to be aware of the suffering and then be overcome by the anxiety associated with it or you could allow your self-consciousness to fall away and experience the pleasure of your closer connection to the ceremony.

The second element is that, “flow is made possible by a centering of attention on a limited stimulus field”(Turner). This focused attention was most obviously seen in the emphasis on prayer during the ceremony. Mike Jr. and others repeatedly told us to go towards prayer when we were having trouble. In other words, prayer was the “frame” or object of attention that would allow our awareness of discomfort to fall away.

The next quality of flow deals with the loss of ego. Turner says that, “No ‘self’ is needed to bargain about what should or should not be done”(Turner). In the context of the sweat lodge there is no critical thinking or decision-making that needs to be done by anyone. Rather, all that is expected of the person is to pray as hard as they can. There is no place for ego in the sweat lodge because it has no function in the sweat lodge. This was certainly one of my largest obstacles in the sweat lodge because we are taught to always have our critical self turned on that it was difficult to even find the switch to turn it off. However, the calm achieved by putting the almost ever-present ego on hold is a great source of flow-pleasure and allows people to more deeply tap into the collective and social elements of the ceremony.

“A fourth element of flow is that the actor finds himself in control of his actions and of the environment”(Turner). This is to say that the participant’s abilities were found to match the demands placed on him or her by the ceremony. In terms of the sweat lodge, I believe that many people, including myself, first experienced a sense of lack of control of the environment and actions at first. However, a second layer seemed to emerge once the ego and anxiety had washed away to some degree. This secondary layer revealed the choices that the participant does have in the environment. We have already talked about the divergent paths of remaining self-consciousness of suffering and anxiety or focusing attention on prayer in order to drop the ego and remove self-consciousness. This is the choice that participants realize they have at that second level and this agency allows the participant to harness this element of flow.

The fifth element also deals with the idea of going towards prayer and submitting yourself to the ceremony, but from a different angle. Turner states that, ”Flow differs from everyday activities in that it contains explicit rules which make action and the evaluation of action unproblematic”(Turner). This element is less clearly seen in the sweat lodge ceremony, but there are certainly obvious rules and guidelines that if followed will lead to flow. For example, not exiting the sweat lodge in between doors will cause a better ceremonial experience and it was also made clear that the more you go towards prayer, the easier and better the ceremony will be for you. These clear suggestions guide you towards flow and allow you to evaluate your participation.

The final element of flow is the only one that I would say is not truly present in the sweat ceremony. This element is that flow “seems to need no goals or rewards outside of itself”. On one hand, many of us were fully in the midst of flow upon exiting the sweat lodge and felt very at peace and happy. On the other hand, there were other goals besides having individuals experience those feelings. The prayers had goals of healing in the community and improved health of loved ones. So while flow does not need other goals beyond itself to occur, the ceremony was filled with goals that were greater than individuals achieving a flow state.

Csikszentmihalvi’s model provides great insight into the interpretation of the sweat lodge ceremony. However, his model is different from many of the other academic models we have covered because it is a model of personal experience. In fact, I probably picked this topic because it seemed to help me process my own experience in the sweat lodge so well. Csikszentmihalvi’s model of flow fell in line with how I experienced the sweat lodge and this is a personal testament to the close connection between flow and religious ritual. In my mind, his model bridges the gap between scholarly theory and personal experience. It seems to have one foot in the academic perspective and one in personal experience. However, the personal experience focus of this model can also be seen as a limitation. This is because it leaves behind much of the social and collective experience of religious ritual.

There are undoubtedly both individual and social elements to a religious ceremony and Csikszentmihalvi’s model would do well to be combined with more socially oriented model such as Durkheim. I believe that a fusion of collective and personal models would come as close as an academic perspective could come to explaining religious ritual. However, there is still room for error. Carl Jung is famous for pointing out that statistics and models are only good for explaining the average or common experience, but that there is always variation in personal experience of the same event. This variation is something that cannot be accounted for by academic models and is why personal experience can never be overlooked in the setting of religious ritual.

Works Cited

Turner, Victor. “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic.” Worship Jubilee: 504-26.

Jung, Carl. The Undiscovered Self. Princeton University Press: January 2012.

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